Hustle is an Impressively Real NBA Drama

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The history of basketball and the NBA in cinema is long and interesting, going from Julius Erving (who also cameos in Hustle) in The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh (1979), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Flying High! (1980), and Michael Jordan in Space Jam (1996), to more legitimate performances from players like Ray Allen in Spike Lee’s iconic He Got Game (1998), and Kevin Garnett in Uncut Gems (2019). All these films use their NBA stars to bolster the credibility of the basketball film (sans Flying High!), but very rarely has a movie been made directly about the NBA. Enter basketball super fan and walking green light Adam Sandler.

Sandler is a notorious basketball obsessive – famously setting up a net at most of his productions – with even NBA legends vouching for his skill on the court, so it’s no surprise to see him making a movie in this world. The film follows Sandler as ageing scout Stanley Sugerman for the Philadelphia 76ers, owned in this world by Robert Duvall’s Rex Merrick. After Rex’s death and ownership changes hands to his petulant son Vince (Ben Foster), Stan is forced to scout internationally to find a player, which he does in Bo Cruz, played by actual NBA player Juancho Hernangomez. 

The film is ultimately a paint-by-numbers inspirational underdog sports movie, closer to Rocky (1976) than The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh, but what makes the film worthwhile is the extraordinary verisimilitude of the NBA world, as well as some truly impressive basketball set pieces that tie the film together. Zagar deploys several extended training montages—a staple in any sports film—including Cruz running up steps in Philadelphia that Sandler had to point out during the sequence. The fact that even this moment is played earnestly is an example of the tone the creators are striving towards that separates it from a suite of recent films.

Juancho Hernangomez (left) and Anthony Edwards (right) in Hustle

Shot wonderfully on film, director Jeremiah Zagar mines intimate moments out of Hernangomez and his family that are as affecting as the high-octane basketball scenes, especially those between Kermit Wilts (played incredibly by NBA star Anthony Edwards) and Bo Cruz. Any fan of the NBA in recent years could tell you Edwards has exploded onto the scene as one of the best personalities in the sport, and Hustle uses his charm and confidence in a wonderful heel turn as Cruz’s rival leading into the draft.

Hustle is a modern sports film made with a high level of skill by Zagar, but it comes at an interesting moment in the genre. The modern sports film finds itself in a precarious position, with the dominance of sports documentary films and series crowding the market. On top of this, the only avenue for filmmakers to create a sports film or series in the 2020s seems to be the involvement of the athlete in question or as part of an athlete-led production company. Hustle is no different here with the involvement of LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s production company, Springhill Company involved, no doubt a key reason the film was able to achieve such a high level of NBA verisimilitude.

While not a terribly innovative or imaginative sports drama, Hustle continues Sandler’s recent run of more serious performances, growing into his later years as an actor that is choosing to work in more interesting and creative spaces. Die-hard NBA fans will lap this film up, while also having enough quality sports filmmaking moments to entertain the less sports averse.

Hustle is currently streaming on Netflix.

Becoming Cousteau Documents Jacques Cousteau’s Lifelong Pursuit of the Sea

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Screener provided by Rialto Distribution

It feels somewhat reductive to call Jacques Cousteau an explorer. He was a pioneer, an inventor, a filmmaker, an author, and, at the later stages of his life, a conservationist to say the bare minimum. Sporting his unmistakeable red beanie, Cousteau set out on a lifelong journey to understand the depth of the ocean, which he and his team on the Calypso saw as an endeavour on the scale of space travel. People unfamiliar with his story may recognise his iconography through the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), where Cousteau was the main inspiration for Bill Murray’s titular character, albeit with vastly different personalities.

Helmed by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus and a mountain of Cousteau’s own archival footage, this documentary is an honest and, at times, quite moving film about how an individual’s singular passion can be inspiring while also blinding them to the relationships to the people and world they inhabit. The film is neither a pure work of lionisation or exposé like many recent documentaries end up being. Garbus is able to toe that incredibly difficult and constantly shifting line that has made her one of the best in the business in working with subjects of immense cultural weight like Marilyn Monroe and Nina Simone.

From the outset, the film strikes you with a certain somber energy, constructed primarily through its voiceover interview delivery as well as the Desplat-esque score from workhorse film composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, furthering the Wes Anderson connection. In a documentary that uses almost entirely archival footage (which is much more effective than a constant barrage of talking heads in hotels), audio is one of two crucial elements Garbus has to involve the audience (the other being the editing), and is where the films grounds itself wonderfully. This gives the film this off-beat energy that never holds your hand into feeling certain emotions while the extraordinary footage of the Calypso’s archival footage crashes over you in waves. This is best illustrated in an early sequence where we are shown actual footage of one of Cousteau’s closest friends, a fellow “musketeer of the sea” Maurice Fargues, which felt somehow both confronting and respectful to the depths they were willing to go to achieve their insatiable goal of exploration.

Jacques Cousteau in Becoming Cousteau

Becoming Cousteau is sequenced in an interesting and poignant way, tracking the transformation of Cousteau from a young passionate man driven to conquer the unknown depths of the ocean, to a seasoned traveller tasking himself with its protection. Garbus does an excellent job shaping Cousteau’s narrative in a cinematic way, from a visionary explorer ahead of his time that was all too often used for his passions by seperate interests (the revelation that the Calypso can be directly linked to the discovery of oil on the Qatari coast felt especially heartbreaking as the film went on), that had to eventually grapple with those earlier decisions.

In the era of the docuseries, it’s hard not to ponder the idea of Cousteau needing an extended runtime to dive deeper into each step of his journey. The films 90-minute runtime oftentimes felt to be moving at warp speed through many nuggets of narrative, from his Oscar and Palme d’Or winning documentary The Silent World (1956) that did The Abyss (1989) two years after James Cameron was born, to his struggles and achievements as a conservationist in his later years. While there is a certain charm to the quick burst documentary film, Becoming Cousteau definitely falters in its execution as a cradle-to-grave story, an issue with most single subject documentary and biopic features, but works well in creating an honest portrait of an inspirational figure that gave us the gift of his own journey on film.

Becoming Cousteau is coming to select national cinemas October 22nd.